SAINT LEONTIUS OF TRIPOLI
A martyr in the early fourth century in Syria (feast day: 22 Abib). The Coptic tradition has preserved in translation two documents about Leontius, a Passion and a panegyric. The two texts fill the first seventy-five pages of a Codex 585 in the Pierpont Morgan Library, New York, dating from the ninth century and analyzed by G. Garitte. They are related to a wide collection of texts about Leontius in many forms and languages. Their content is described here, followed by an assessment of each in the light of the Greek, Syriac Arabic, and Georgian parallels.
The Coptic Passion
The Passion opens with Leontius “the Arabian” living in the time of persecution by the emperor Maximian. The decree of persecution is received by the proconsul Julian in Tripoli, in Syria. The angel of the Lord appears to Publius, a noble and rich man who has received the young orphan Leontius into his home. When Publius and Leontius come to the tribunal to bear witness to their faith, the hostile judge threatens punishment. Leontius is scourged, beaten with lashes, has salt rubbed into his wounds, and is burned on his sides with lamps, but the archangel Michael comes to cure him.
Leontius then professes his faith in dialogue with Julian and refuses to sacrifice to the emperor. Leontius is then rolled upon iron spikes, struck in the face with thongs until all his teeth are broken, and cast into boiling sulfur and lead; again Michael descends to heal him. Leontius throws earth into Julian’s face and has his tongue slit, but Michael once again descends to cure him. The proconsul then prepares a cauldron of sulfur, bitumen, and tallow until its boiling makes a great noise, but scarcely has Leontius entered into it when the brew is transformed into cool water, so that the tallow sticks to his body like wax.
Leontius then defies Asclepius, god of healing, by healing a paralytic whom the god cannot relieve. Finally the proconsul gives an order for the beheading of Leontius and Publius. Their last prayer is received by the archangel Michael. Leontius’ blood is collected to work healings. The corpses, left by order as prey for wild beasts, are protected by the angels, and the Christians come by night to bury them with honor.
This Coptic Passion is the longest of those relating to Leontius. The common motifs of Coptic HAGIOGRAPHY are present in abundance, in particular the frequent descents of the archangel Michael. This type of narrative has all the marks of an imaginary story without any actual documentation. None of the Greek documents (Bibliotheca Hagiographica Graeca 986-87d) know anything of Publius, but they associate Leontius with two soldiers whom he converts, Hypatius and Theodule, who suffered with him under the judge Hadrian much earlier (first century) in the time of Vespasian. The Coptic Passion probably owes its origin to the foundation of a church of Saint Leontius at Daphne in 507, following the destruction of a synagogue.
For Daphne received its theater under Vespasian, and the cult of Leontius must have replaced an older cult. The Syriac Passion and the corresponding Georgian Passion both presuppose a lost Greek Palestinian model. Leontius there is Greek, not an Arab as he is according to the statement of Theodore the Oriental (Bibliotheca Hagiographica Orientalis 1163) inserted in the title of the Coptic Passion. Probably there is some connection with the sanctuary of Leontine in the Hauran. In the Syriac and Georgian Passions, Leontius is judged with Publius under Diocletian and Maximian by the tribune Philocrinus and then by the judge Firmilian. Publius is sent to the prefect Eumenius at Tyre but dies on the journey.
Leontius, who has been set free, is rearrested and scourged with branches of thorny citron, then plunged into the sea, after which he dies. His body is taken up by Joannia, who in clothing it for burial takes an image of his face and prays for her husband, Maurus, who is imprisoned near the emperor in Rome. Maurus is, in fact, set free, dines with the emperor, and on his return to Tripoli is led by a stranger who disappears before he reaches the city. When his wife shows him the icon of Leontius, he recognizes the features of his guide. This final episode in the Syriac and Georgian texts has migrated into one of the Greek Passions published in 1964 by F. Halkin and into an unpublished Arabic Passion (Sinai Arabic manuscript 406, fols. 183-89, dated from 1264). This Arabic Passion describes Maudus (a version of Maurus) as close to Diocletian. Leontius has no companion, and his judge is called Tfarius (perhaps a version of Firmilianus).
The Coptic Panegyric
The Coptic Panegyric is the most striking historical piece of all the texts in praise of Leontius. It may be contrasted with two Syrian panegyrics delivered by SEVERUS OF ANTIOCH, on June 513 and 514 (homilies 27 and 50 in the great collection of 125 of Severus’ homilies). The Coptic work, which has several paragraphs in common with homily 27, appears to have been delivered at Tripoli, near the saint’s sanctuary, whereas the Syriac homilies were given in Daphne. The Coptic work, which is much longer than the Syriac, contains a paragraph in which Severus recalls his youth as a student of Roman law in Beirut and how he was converted in the very church of Saint Leontius in Tripoli.
This episode was probably deleted from the Syriac homily because Severus’ enemies, who considered his pagan origin a detraction, used it against him. The Coptic Panegyric also recounts a story of the martyrdom according to the statements of an old man whom Severus himself once met. This story emphasizes the torment of the cauldron in which the boiling tallow is transformed into wax, which in Severus’ time was still used for the healing of the sick. Three etiological miracles are linked to the story and testify beyond doubt to the experience of an eyewitness in 488, the probable date of the conversion of Severus.
The corresponding Syriac passage, at the point of passing to the testimony, says that Leontius had no need of a scribe to write his Passion with all the flowers of rhetoric because the saint himself wrote it with the cures that continued to be performed at his tomb. This important affirmation is interpreted by G. Garitte (Garitte, 1968, pp. 425-26) as if no Passion yet existed in 513. But it may be rather a question of the lofty style of rhetoric, for Severus’ reflection indicates that in his period Passions were necessary for more than one saint. However that may be, in the fifth century the church at Tripoli received some distinguished visitors, such as Melanie the Younger and Peter the Iberian. It would probably be wrong to deny the existence of the martyrdom or the documentary value of the simplest text, the Syriac Passion.
- Garitte, G. “La Passion copte sahidique.” Le Muséon 78 (1965):313-48.
- . “L’Homélie copte de Sévère d’Antioche.” Le Muséon 79 (1966):335-86.
- . “La Passion syriaque.” Le Muséon 61 (1968):415-40.
- Halkin, F. “Passion et miracle posthume de saint Léonce martyr à Tripoli en Phénicie.” Analecta Bollandiana 82 (1964):319-40.
MICHEL VAN ESBROECK